Lebanese forces a welcome sight for most in south

Friday, August 18, 2006

QLEIA, Lebanon -- Villagers throwing rice and Hezbollah supporters holding banners welcomed the country's army to south Lebanon on Thursday after a nearly 40-year absence, and the first airliner landed at Beirut airport since fighting began more than a month ago.

Four days into a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, there was still no firm date for a deployment of an enhanced international force that is supposed to expand to 15,000 troops and join an equal number of Lebanese soldiers.

The United Nations got pledges Thursday of 3,500 troops for the force, with Bangladesh making the largest offer of up to 2,000 troops. But France offered just 400, and Germany -- uneasy given its Nazi past of any possible military confrontation with Israeli soldiers -- said it wouldn't send any.

France was expected to lead the U.N. force, and its announcement of such a small number focused attention on its demands for a more explicit mandate, including when to use firepower, and could affect contributions by other countries.

Even though the Israel withdrawal and handover to U.N. forces has gone well thus far, some potential contributors are believed to be concerned about avoiding confrontation with Hezbollah or being caught in the middle of a future conflict.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution called for the force to keep the peace and disarm Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani River. However, the Lebanese government adopted a mandate Wednesday that requires confiscation of Hezbollah arms only if carried in public. It said nothing about the network of Hezbollah rocket bunkers across the 18-mile stretch between the river and the Israeli border.

The deep political divisions in Lebanon resurfaced with the head of the largest parliamentary bloc blasting both Israel and Syria in a fiery nationalistic speech to hundreds of supporters.

Saad Hariri, the leader of an independent, secular bloc that has opposed Syrian domination of Lebanon and is seen as an opponent of Hezbollah, accused Israel of "living off the blood" of Arabs and said Syrian President Bashar Assad was trying to sow strife in Lebanon. Syria and Iran are the main international backers of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim guerrilla group opposed to Israel.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, when asked about Hariri's speech, said: "Too often in the Arab world, people think that political legitimacy is attained by bashing Israel."

At least 845 Lebanese were killed in the 34-day war: 743 civilians, 34 soldiers and 68 Hezbollah. Israel says it killed about 530 guerrillas. On the Israeli side, 157 were killed -- 118 soldiers and 39 civilians, many from the 3,970 Hezbollah rocket strikes. The figures were compiled by The Associated Press, mostly from government officials on both sides.

In Beirut, the international airport reopened to commercial traffic for the first time since July 13 when it was attacked by Israeli warplanes and gunboats. A Middle East Airlines passenger jet touched down from Amman, Jordan, ending a 36-day Israeli blockade, and a Royal Jordanian flight followed soon after.

The Israeli military said it was coordinating the arrivals, and that the air blockade had not been lifted. But Middle East Airlines Chairman Mohammed Hout said the blockade was partially lifted to allow flights between Amman and Beirut. Airport officials said full commercial traffic could resume next week.

In southern Lebanon, about 2,500 Lebanese soldiers from the 10th Brigade set up camps within a half-mile of the Israeli border -- a key step toward taking control of the whole country for the first time since 1968 and a major demand of the U.N. resolution that so far has halted the fighting.

The deployment marks the first time the Lebanese army has moved in force to a region that was held by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970s and by Hezbollah since Israeli troops withdrew from the area in 2000.

As the Lebanese troops began spreading out along the frontier at the north end of Israel's Galilee panhandle, a convoy of eight U.N. peacekeeping trucks rumbled into Kfar Kila, just south of here, to take up positions that were held by Israelis before they began withdrawing. Those posts were to be transferred to Lebanese forces, mostly likely by early Friday.

Abu Hussein Awad, a 58-year-old Shiite, claims the distinction of being the Lebanese civilian who lives closest to Israel. His house backs up against the Fatima Gate where Israeli troops withdrew in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation of south Lebanon.

"The army is good, I'm glad they're here," said Awad, who has lived here for 50 years -- most of the time Israel has been in existence.

He was asked if he supported Hezbollah.

"I'm Lebanese. I don't like Hezbollah ... . I love Lebanon only -- not America, not Iran and not Syria -- just Lebanon," he said, listing the key backers of the combatants in the war.

The area of Lebanon's border with Israel was in ruins. In the towns of Adaisse and Taibeh, south and west of Kfar Kila respectively, it was difficult to find a building that was not blackened, pockmarked by artillery or flattened altogether.

Wreckage was strewn through the streets, but new Hezbollah flags flapped in the wind over piles of rubble. In Kfar Kila, young men hung giant yellow banners above intersections. They read: "Rice, they will not see your new Mideast" and "The Great Lebanon has defeated the murderers." Both were signed, Hezbollah.

The only traffic in the towns was young bearded men zipping around piles of wreckage on motorcycles. They spoke quietly into two-way radios, occasionally dismounted to kiss one another on both cheeks, then zipped away. One had a handgun tucked into his belt. Another threw an AK-47 rifle into the back of a pickup truck when a reporter approached.

"I am a Hezbollah fighter, and this is my town," proclaimed 35-year-old Ahmed, who declined to give his full name because he feared retribution from Israel. His voice echoed off the shells of vacant, gnarled buildings in Adaisse's main square.

Ahmed pointed to one charred building after another. "That is where 18 of them (Israeli soldiers) died, and five more there," he said, pointing to buildings off the town square. "That over there is my business, a bookshop."

"Why did they (the Israelis) come? Why did they do this?" Ahmed screamed, his cement block house in shambles. "Next time the Israelis come, we'll fight again for sure." He broke open a 6-pack of mineral water he said he snatched from next to the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed days ago here.

Among the soldiers who will be taking up positions in villages like Adaisse and Taibeh was Cpl. Muhammed Abdul Rahim. The 42-year-old Lebanese army ranger from Tripoli, in the far north of the country, said he felt "like a new man today."

"It's a difficult mission, and the times now are still dangerous. I think we have one more week of danger in this country," he said.

The arrival of Adbul Rahim and his comrades was welcomed.

"We've been waiting for 30 years for this army to come," said George Najm, a 23-year-old wedding singer from Qleia. "Today is a new beginning."

"Lebanon is a beautiful country," Najm said as he looked over the valley toward Israel. "But it's been a pretty difficult place to live for the past month."

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